Published on Monday, June 17, 2002 in the New York Times
Bush to Formalize a Defense Policy of Hitting First
by David E. Sanger
CRAWFORD, Tex. President Bush has directed his top national security aides to make a doctrine of pre-emptive action against states and terrorist groups trying to develop weapons of mass destruction into the foundation of a new national security strategy, according to senior administration officials drafting the document.
Iraq is clearly first on the target list for such action, and already the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department have stepped up efforts to unseat Saddam Hussein in a last effort to avoid the necessity of a full-scale invasion.
Yet the policy, a significant move away from the chesslike military strategies of the cold war, deals more broadly with a range of options to prevent nations from obtaining large-scale weapons or sponsoring terrorism. The strategy will probably be completed in August, when the president is here on vacation.
His aides said they are fine-tuning the policy to make it clear that the United States has options beyond armed intervention. Those options include joint operations with Russia and other powers. Potential targets include weak states that have become, in the words of one official, "petri dishes" for terrorist groups.
Mr. Bush emphasized pre-emption when he addressed the German Parliament last month. He expanded on the theme at West Point two weeks ago, saying, "If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long." On Friday, at a Republican fund-raiser, he called his approach a "new doctrine," although it echoes actions that past presidents have taken, notably President Kennedy's quarantine of Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis.
"It really means early action of some kind," Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, said in a recent interview. "It means forestalling certain destructive acts against you by an adversary." There are times, she said, when "you can't wait to be attacked to respond."
Although Ms. Rice describes the new policy as a broad one, and one that names no countries or terrorist groups, it is already being set in motion against Iraq.
Twice since Sept. 11, Mr. Bush has signed findings authorizing more spending for Iraqi opposition groups, with a focus on intelligence-gathering and on the infiltration by American Special Operations forces and C.I.A. operatives.
The latest order authorizes those forces to kill Mr. Hussein only in self
"The problem with a full-scale invasion is that you lose the element of surprise, which is often critical in pre-emption," a senior official said today. "So the president wants to try everything short of that, because he knows that if we have to mount an invasion force, Saddam will see it coming."
Discussions within the White House have dwelled on examples that suggest that the most successful pre-emptive actions were not the most drastic military options. Ms. Rice noted that President Kennedy "thought about a lot of possibilities" during the 1962 missile crisis, but rejected advice to launch a direct attack on the Soviet missile sites being built on island.
"They settled on a strategy that actually was pre-emptive, but didn't use military force to do it, and thereby preserved the possibility for the Soviets to back down," she said. She would not apply the lesson to the current Iraq debate, but said that "there's a whole range of possible ways to take early action."
Others involved said that White House discussions have taken up other cases: President Johnson's consideration, for example, of a pre-emptive strike against China to prevent it from deploying nuclear weapons. The option was abandoned.
The drafters of the policy have also given thought to cases in which presidents failed to act pre-emptively, including not moving more actively against Nazi Germany in the 1930's.
With that in mind, administration officials and some outside consultants have discussed what kind of pre-emptive options Mr. Bush would have to choose from if intelligence concluded that a nation was about to obtain or export weapons of mass destruction. They have also considered how the United States should react if Islamic militants in Pakistan, for example, tried to seize the country's nuclear weapons.
In public statements, Mr. Bush has not discussed his policy in terms of individual countries or terrorist groups. But in private conversations with his close circle, it is is a near-constant source of discussion. Those officials include Secretary of State Colin L. Powell; Ms. Rice; her deputy for counterterrorism, Gen. Wayne Downing; Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld; and other members of the national security team. He has also taken it up with members of Congress.
Referring to action against Iraq, Senator Joseph Biden, the Delaware Democrat who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said today on CBS, "I have discussed this with the President," and "at length" with Ms. Rice and other aides, and was convinced that in the campaign to oust Mr. Hussein, "there's a clear way to do this."
But recently, Mr. Bush has sprinkled his public statements with references to pre-emption as a pillar of a campaign against stateless terrorists or against states that would slip them nuclear or biological material.
In Berlin last month, Mr. Bush stood in the Reichstag, whose burning in 1933 marked the beginning of Hitler's rise as Europe stood by, and warned his European allies that "wishful thinking" would not eliminate "the new totalitarian threat."
The president's aides say the new policy rewrites the fundamental strategies that guided American thinking during the cold war.
The first of those strategies was containment the policy of living with the nuclear power of the Soviet Union but preventing its expansion. The second was deterrence, which assumed that America's defenses could be arrayed to assure a devastating response and therefore keep the enemy from acting.
Both strategies fit within the United Nations charter, which gives a nation a right to defend itself when attacked but offers little room for countries to define when they felt threatened.
The subject of formalizing a strategy of pre-emptive action including military attack has come up repeatedly at the meetings of Mr. Bush's top national security aides, held three times a week. "It didn't take long for this to gel," Ms. Rice said, after "looking at the growing dangers of weapons of mass destruction, at how the terrorists networks operate."
The process of including America's allies has only just begun, and administration officials concede that it will be difficult at best. Leaders in Berlin, Paris and Beijing, in particular, have often warned against unilateralism. But Mr. Bush's new policy could amount to ultimate unilateralism, because it reserves the right to determine what constitutes a threat to American security and to act even if that threat is not judged imminent.
However, Mr. Bush has not described the limits of that policy or how he would define a threat. "Constitutionally, the president has the right to act pre-emptively," Mr. Biden said today. "The hard question," he said, is how to judge whether a country with nuclear or biological weapons has the intent to use them. "For example, the Chinese have a capacity. Does the president have the right to pre-emptively go strike the Chinese, the Communist regime?" Mr. Biden asked. "The answer's no."
Mr. Biden's observation raises the question of how much political pressure from Congress, from allies, and perhaps from the United Nations could limit Mr. Bush's freedom to act unilaterally. The administration, not suprisingly, is arguing for the widest possible latitude, making the case that only it can define what poses a major and imminent threat to national security.
Others outside the administration worry that other nations could immediately follow the American lead and twist a policy of pre-emption to their advantage. Israel could use it to justify harder strikes into Palestinian territory; India could use it to pre-empt any Pakistani nuclear threat; China could use it to justify an attack on Taiwan.
"Consistency poses problems," said Peter W. Galbraith, a former ambassador to Croatia and now a professor at the National War College. Mr. Galbraith said he is a supporter of pre-emptive action against Iraq, yet he worries about what happens if the new American doctrine spreads uncontrolled. "No place is the risk greater than in South Asia," he said. "If India adopted the American doctrine of pre-emption, it risks a nuclear war, with devastating consequences for the world. It's a tricky business."
Administration officials say they believe that that allied resistance to Mr. Bush's approach is overstated and that Iraq is a superb first test of the policy. The officials argue that the threat is clear and that Mr. Hussein's violations of United Nations commands are vivid.
In speeches and private conversations, Mr. Bush makes clear that the United States does not know whether Iraq has acquired nuclear or biological weapons, but he suggests that the only prudent course is to assume it has. Otherwise, the argument goes, Mr. Hussein would allow in weapons inspectors, whom he has barred for three years now.
Also, even if there is little evidence that Iraq was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Bush and his aides say, Mr. Hussein's willingness to use chemical weapons against his own people, the Kurds, must be taken as evidence that he would attack the United States or its allies as soon as he has the capability. During the Persian Gulf war in 1991, Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser under Mr. Bush's father, warned that if Iraq used chemical or biological weapons against Israel or American troops, the response would be devastating and overwhelming.
Mr. Hussein did not launch such an attack. But Mr. Bush's declared policy of ousting the Iraqi dictator before he can act may have eliminated any incentive for restraint. The policy may also prompt Mr. Hussein to a pre-emptive attack of his own. "The message we've sent him in the past six months is very different that he's going out," one senior official said. In light of that, Mr. Hussein might be more willing "to respond with everything he's got."
Ms. Rice and other officials contend that the less headline-grabbing aspects of the administration's new policy have been barely discussed in public but are as important as the new military strategy. A critical component, she argues, is establishing "a common security framework for the great powers," in which the United States, Russia, China, Japan and Europe "share a common security agenda" in which they work together to keep terrorists and rogue states from challenging that system.
The administration argues that approach has shown promise already: China has been mostly helpful talking to North Korea since the 1994 nuclear crisis there, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia joined in the effort to defuse the latest India-Pakistan crisis. If that continued, she said, "this would be a much more stable world." But Mr. Putin has strongly disagreed with President Bush about the dangers of Russia's export of commercial nuclear technology to Iran, and China continues to supply Pakistan. Neither has been persuaded by the administration's insistence that they must stop.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company